There are plenty of people who have said smart, thoughtful things about CNN’s talking-head commentary on the Steubenville verdict, many of them right here. Read them. They cover everything I would have thought to say about those public effects of rape culture and more than I could manage right now. Me? I’d like to say a few words about football.
We really, really need to face the fact that football–along with other competitive sports but perhaps more so than any of them–is not a promising future. Football is an industry that chews up and spits out a huge number of our male children for the benefit of schools and team owners and a population that has been trained to find its own worth in other people’s efforts.
Very few players see much benefit from playing football. Some of them may get scholarships, but no one prepares them for learning, and their schoolwork follows a distant second after the gladiatorial work they are hired to perform. A very few of them may get professional contracts, but no one helps them understand that the money ends with injury, that their bodies and sometimes their brains will wear out, leaving them used up and alone at far too young an age.
That doesn’t stop the promises, though. “Perform for me, and be treated like a king. Take the rewards you want and be untouchable.” It’s a lie, as hard as many coaches and sports towns and schools try to make it happen. It isn’t easy to get the attention of the world outside the sport, but when it happens, as it did, eventually, in Steubenville, those kids find that their immunity doesn’t always carry.
If these kids were studying their history instead of how to hit each other, this wouldn’t surprise them. Gladiators were generally slaves. The women provided to them were slaves too. Citizens weren’t part of the deal.
We’ve dressed things up a bit more these days, now that straightforward slavery is off the table. We’ve managed to hide the servitude better, call it status. Still, the lucky ones get out early. They have other choices. As the sport moves from children’s play to a business, they have other interests, other rewards that take up their time. They learn. They create. They interact with people who like them as people. They find rewards that aren’t contingent on helping others feel like winners or sell tickets.
The ones in the middle don’t fare as well. Better than the ones with multiple concussions and no knees to speak of, but not well. They’ve learned to like the treatment and the promises. When those evaporate as these kids don’t make one cut or another, they don’t have much left. They’ve always been disposable, and they find this out when they get disposed of. They’re not pampered. They’re not celebrated. They’re not protected when they misbehave. Their day is done, and they haven’t made themselves another.
This “promising future” business? Not only is it part of the cultural nonsense that says it’s all cool to treat some people as though they have all the rights and others as though they have none. It’s also a lie. It’s really time we stop telling it.